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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Breaking the Silence on Sexual Harassment : BEARING WITNESS: Sexual Harassment and Beyond: Everywoman's Story by Celia Morris ; Little Brown, $21.95, 326 pages

March 28, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

T o bear, that most interesting and female of verbs, can ring like a curse shouted by a shrewish God waving a wooden spoon at the gates of Eden: "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children." Bearing witness, bearing children, bearing burdens : these stolid words evoke fate and history. I much prefer "breaking silence," a phrase Celia Morris, a Texan and author of two previous books on women in politics--"Storming the Statehouse: Running for Governor With Ann Richards and Dianne Feinstein," and "Fanny Wright: Rebel in America"--uses throughout "Bearing Witness."

Indeed, this book gives more space to the stories told by individual women than to Morris' analysis; part of a noble and increasingly popular academic and journalistic tradition (not unlike the Oprah Winfrey show) in which people bear witness and break silence simply by telling their stories.

"We need colleagues," writes Morris, "committed to the proposition that there are no excuses for men who abuse women, as well as friends who will bear witness with us--friends who believe that abuse is unjust and that justice matters."

Much of the book pivots on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, which Morris sees as the point of historical change in attitudes toward sexual harassment and women's political power in general.

But even after the hearings, it still remains difficult to identify sexual harassment.

For some of us, telling the Neanderthal with the dumb jokes that one more will land him in the personnel office is a clear, easy alternative. Others obsess for months over whether the gesture the parking attendant makes each morning and afternoon is actually a lewd gesture, then end up parking six blocks away while the parking attendant goes on making the gesture to other women.

These are obnoxious but relatively harmless examples. Being touched or forced to engage in sexual relationships just to keep your job is a form of abuse not unlike slavery (a point Morris makes repeatedly). Being forced to do something because someone is stronger than you or has an economic advantage over you is like being discriminated against on the basis of race or religion.

History has shown that people in power are almost incapable of identifying it, but why don't we know it the second we experience it? And even if we recognize a sinking feeling in the heart, who put all that cotton wool between our hearts and our mouths?

Perhaps we need a working definition. Morris offers several, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's: "Conduct that on the basis of the employee's sex makes it more difficult for one person than another to perform the job."

Many of the women Morris spoke with expressed a feeling, even if they were able to identify sexual harassment, of being powerless to get justice, a hopeless feeling that the men harassing them could continue to do whatever they wanted, that speaking out would only incur punishment.

Most of these women were indeed punished: They lost their jobs or were ostracized in the communities they worked in. Most of them were in their late 30s or early 40s, and most of them had financial responsibilities. They may have gained their dignity and self-respect, but as individuals in institutions (many of them academic), most were hung out to dry.

Institutions change slowly, with much stalling and complaining: Think of corporations forced to write environmental impact reports, or to follow affirmative action hiring practices. We are correcting for decades of imbalance, unfairness, inequity and abuse in all walks of life.

The word victim appears frequently in feminist literature, and many of the women quoted in "Bearing Witness" express or expose a fear of looking like victims. Therapy tells us that we want to be in control of our lives, that we don't want to be victims. Victims are unappealing, stuck, weak.

"Women who don't laugh at the old jokes and pratfalls anymore," Morris writes, "can be expected to be called humorless, hysterical, shrill, strident. . . . The truth is that men are losing control of a potent weapon: the power to define what is funny."

The fact is, we are all victims at one point or another--on the wrong side of a power equation. In order not to remain victims, we must have a variety of choices and responses: telling others, telling the person or people harassing us, telling authorities who will listen and respond, seeking representation and taking legal steps.

These stories encourage you to think about the Neanderthal with the dumb jokes; to try to remember how much time you spent wondering about someone's slimy innuendo, or being afraid you were going to be punished. Try out Ginsburg's definition and see if the verdict is sexual harassment. Then tell someone about it.

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